We're all guilty of criminal intent

Crime in an Insecure World
February 9, 2007

Politicians have made suspicious deviants of us all, laments Simon Davies

The key word for the 21st century is control. More laws and regulations have been enacted since 1980 than in the entire preceding century. More people have been criminalised in one form or another in the past decade than in all the decades combined since the Second World War.

Meanwhile, surveillance has become an integral part of the world's legal, communications and information systems.

Plagued by revenue problems, security scares and pressures for instant policy fixes, cowardly and risk-averse lawmakers have subtly shaped a new social contract between authority and citizen. The goals of this contract are straightforward: maximise the extraction of revenue, enforce appropriate behaviour and eliminate risk. In return, the contract claims to offer more security, equality and economic efficiency. In the process, governments have enervated democracy while creating an illusion of accountability. Increasingly, human activity in all its forms is identified, scrutinised and regulated.

From the perspective of economic and population management, the goals of the new contract seem to make sense. From the perspective of social evolution, they spell disaster. In neoliberal cultures, the contract requires vast buttressing by legal enforcement. This is already taking place. The number of people each year who are restrained or disciplined by legal, administrative and judicial mechanisms is greater by an order of magnitude than 20 years ago. Legislation regulating conduct in public has, for example, increased fifteenfold in the same period. The requirement for "permission" to initiate group activities has soared. The combined effect of these developments is a push to normalise human behaviour with the intention of promoting "good" and socially responsible conduct. Deviants, when identified, are penalised in myriad novel ways. With escalating regulation and surveillance, deviation is increasingly probable and easier to detect. A shrinking "zone of normality" has been constructed. Individuals may step outside this domain, but they will be more vulnerable, exposed and observed than ever before.

We are all potential deviants. The idea of the "good, law-abiding and honest" citizen has been largely eliminated. Government has engineered an environment in which all citizens must be controlled at all times. This has come about partly because it is not acceptable to single out particular groups or classes, even if they have historically been a cause of threat or dysfunction. It is also due to a philosophy that only those with something to hide have something to fear. The maxim "no one is above the law" has become "no one is above suspicion".

It is against this disquieting backdrop that Richard Ericson, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, assesses the creation of mass criminalisation in the 21st century. In plotting the chaotic growth of risk aversion, he also produces a forensic analysis of an important aspect of power and control in our societies and a sobering critique of the drivers behind proscriptive regulation. Crime in an Insecure World left me anxious and pessimistic. It presents a litany of cowardice, self-interest and deception. In Ericson's analysis, risk aversion has supplanted leadership and accountability, leaving a vacuum into which rushes a deluge of ill-conceived legislation. By the 100th page, one would be forgiven for concluding that we are all heading to hell in a handcart.

The book's tone is academic. But ignore for a moment its inevitable and copious references to the theorists, and this is EastEnders . Scratch away the theoretical surface and you are confronted with a raw expose of governance in its most corrupt and negative guise. The author commences his deflating analysis with a look at national security initiatives, notably those that have emerged since 2001. One of the most contentious and disconcerting questions focuses on the integrity of the measures being pursued in the war on terror. How do we distinguish genuine and meaningful public security proposals from those based on convenience and illusion while avoiding the appearance of ingratitude or cynicism towards those who might just be doing their best to help in the great partnership? A war of any type invites opportunity - to demonstrate patriotism, to sell political ideas, to market products, to name but three. But there is a fine line between the exercise of opportunity and the pursuit of opportunism, and Ericson provides evidence that the distinction has never been respected in the current war. In moving through the realms of social security, corporate security and domestic security, he sets out an exhaustive list of cases that prompt uncomfortable questions about the motivation behind recent policy changes.

In one respect, the book falls short. Like so many authors, Ericson ignores historical perspective. Uncertainty and risk have long been with us. It would have been fascinating to read a comparative view of risk (and response to risk) over the past 60 years rather than merely the past six years. The Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis were two such episodes that should have been considered. I would have been interested to learn why the 21st-century response is so different in form and nature.

Even so, this book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how nations exploit and negotiate risk. It also provides a powerful analysis of mass criminalisation across the globe and will therefore be a fascinating read for academics and for policymakers.

Simon Davies is co-director of the Policy Engagement Research Group in the London School of Economics.

Crime in an Insecure World

Author - Richard V. Ericson
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 248
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3828 7 and 3829 5

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